Sheep Machine by Vi Khi Nao
Black Sun Lit, June 2018
151 pages / Amazon
Vi Khi Nao’s Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018) is an ekphrastic project, made in relation to Leslie Thornton’s short film of the same name. The book is organized into short blocks of prose, each engaging with one second of Thornton’s kaleidoscopic cinema. The narrative of Nao’s work does not revolve around plot, but rather duration. Events unfold over time: second by second. And each of these moments is utterly unique, using language in new and unexpected ways.
Thornton’s original film depicts a field of sheep grazing as cable cars pass overhead. Often it takes the form of dual projections of binocular images, one obscured by a kaleidoscopic filter, the other not. Hence, each second (each page) of Nao’s ekphrasis is reacting to a multitude of visual details, more specifically, to the image and its further manipulation. Or, as it seems in the frame of Nao’s work, the image and its truth. In one binocular, the sheep. In the other, curved wheat fields and organic fractals. In this act of obscuring, Sheep Machine finds a new kind of language. One built from cycles of repetition and repurposing. Joanna Ruocco has said, “Vi Khi Nao’s language isn’t made of words like everyone else’s,” and this could not be truer. Nao has practically created a new kind of dialect. The rhythm of her prose is hypnotic and alluring. It draws us into a kind of familiarity. What’s going on can be difficult to follow, but we know that we’ve been here before.
This is also partly due to the ways that Sheep Machine repurposes language, primarily pop culture artifacts. Towards the halfway point she writes, “Monkey Yodas invite the demure sunset to display itself on their foreheads.” Rather than using these terms as references (such as in Ready Player One or most Kevin Smith movies), Nao uses them as she would any other adjective or noun. They are extensions of the lexicon, ways to avoid frivolous descriptive passages. Absurd terms like ‘monkey Yoda’ or ‘cosmic Lego set’ become additions to the author’s tool belt.
The formation of this new dialect gives Nao the ideal means by which to create Sheep Machine. Thornton’s work is often kaleidoscopic and thus abstract. Because of this, Nao’s unique linguistic techniques are often a means of pulling these images into the physical world, turning them tactile and haptic. “We climb the earth to offer the camera the jugular region it fantasizes.” Yet this transition does not necessarily bring Thornton’s Sheep Machine into our world. Nao’s work suspends itself in another dimension. One with an unstable ontology, where objects can only prove their existence through mimicry. The cable car is not a cable car, it is a coffin. The wheat is not wheat, it is a field of machinic nipples. Because of this relational kind of being, most objects take on a kind of cyborgean characteristic, where they are represented as a mixture of the film’s two primary components: sheep and machine.
Because of the straightforward nature of Thornton’s imagery, the film lacks any real narrative, rather we are staying in place as we experience different ways of seeing. “How light reshapes the organ of perception.” Nao’s ekphrasis thus avoids any true narrative as well. We see actions carry across pages (across seconds) but nothing really comes of them. What Nao does here, in strict regards to the content, feels archival. It feels as if she has taken it upon herself to document each second of shifting perspectives, each moment of changing ontology (noting when a cable car becomes a coffin and when a field of wheat grows mechanical nipples). Nao documents the abstract mutations of the scenery, and her stylistic decisions reflect this. “The coffin (an animal bin) ascends.”
Sheep Machine is a movement across mediums. It is objects floating through the portal from film to literature. It is the reason behind and the explanation of these unstable ontologies. An experiment in transference. The desire to see what is lost and what is gained in this act. A lesson in what tools are needed and which are unnecessary. In a time such as ours, where books are often written so that they might be turned into movies, Nao reverses this action, turning movie into book. And the result of this reversal is a book that is truer to the cinematic form and experience than anything else I’ve read yet. There are likely two reasons for this. First is the reversal itself. By changing directions, Nao has added constraints rather than removed them. Where moving from book to film creates a new visual element (one with limitless expectations placed on a limited budget), moving from film to book removes elements, it is an act of condensing rather than expanding. The work is reduced into one facet of its production. And rather than using this one facet (the writing) to document the contents of Thornton’s film, Nao has instead used it to document the form. There are still sheep grazing under the cable cars in Nao’s ekphrasis, but here, as in the film, they are the subject to ever-changing perspectives and kaleidoscopic mutations. The camera’s abstracting qualities are fused into Nao’s unique dialect. This is all to say that Nao’s success is the result of where she has chosen to focus. Each page an exploration of each second’s style and frame.